I’ve come by a circuitous route to Alan Garner. His books weren’t a part of my childhood or adolescent reading and though I’ve had a 1970’s (?) copy of The Stone Book for many years, I’d never previously got around to reading The Stone Book Quartet – until now.
Several things have conspired to lately bring Alan Garner’s writing to the top of my reading list. I picked up a copy of his recent book Beauty Things co-written with Mark Edmonds and then First Light a celebration of his writing published on the occasion of his 80th birthday and edited by Erica Wagner. Both books made me want to read more, and read the texts that again and again were referred to with such respectful awe by the various contributors to Unbound‘s First Light.
It seems therefore, that I’m in for a bit of a GarnerFest beginning with The Stone Book Quartet.
Garner, A (1976) The Stone Book Quartet Collins ISBN 0 00 655151 3
In Garner’s work the past, present and future meld and there’s little time for linear time. In his work time becomes layered and deep time has a powerful, affective impact on the actions of the present.
And Mary sat by the fire and read the stone book that had in it all the stories of the world and the flowers of the flood.
The closing paragraph of The Stone Book
The Guardian in October 2004 described his work as a…
…microscopically attentive study of the region [that] comes with a deeply-felt appreciation of its cultural history […] it is in combining this almost claustrophobic sense of place with a prodigiously expansive handling of time that has given his work its instantly identifiable tone.
The critic and writer Neil Philip, in the most comprehensive study of Garner’s work, A Fine Anger (1981), wrote that time was Garner’s most constant theme:
…sequential, causal, ‘historical’ time is set against and enlarged by a ‘mythological’ concept of time as elastic, cyclic, recoverable. Philip went on to note that myth is the crucible in which Garner’s thinking about time has been fired.
The Stone Book Quartet as the name implies is a series of four connected stories. The four books were first published by Collins as individual hardcover editions: The Stone Book (1976), Tom Fobble’s Day (1977), Granny Reardun (1977) and The Aimer Gate (1978). One year after the publication of The Aimer Gate Collins published an omnibus The Stone Book Quartet (1979) and subsequent editions have retained the title and format. The narrative sequence in the Quartet is The Stone Book, Granny Reardun, The Aimer Gate, and Tom Fobble’s Day.
Broadly, the four stories tell Alan Garner’s family history as fiction. Whilst simply told, each book provides a thread, a marvellous skein of dialect that provides a vividly specific portrayal of place, of labourers and artisans, of the cycle of the seasons and the continuity inherent in all these. The stories also bring together themes that are central to Garner’s craft: time; landscape; the centrality of place, family and history; and the interweaving of the imaginative, the magical and the creative (each having equal importance with the rational, the scientific and the analytical).
He actually creates hardly any original material. Most of the names are real people and most of these stories have been lying around. What he does is to find things, rearrange them and put them together. His creativity lies in making connections which haven’t previously been articulated. Likewise as a finder and assembler, sometimes of the simplest words, he is a genius. It is quite inappropriate to compare him to, say CS Lewis or Tolkien because he doesn’t deal in fantasy, his is the real stuff of his part of England. The materials in his stories are authentic, not fabricated. Maybe this is why his later books have taken so long. He has had to prowl around to find these connections.”
Professor Richard Morris, Emeritus Professor of Archeology, University of Huddersfield. Chair of the Blackden Trust. He has known Garner for 30 years.
The Stone Book Quartet was a complete change of tone after the Big Four of Garner’s ‘children’s books’ phase (though they never were children’s books per se) The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, 1960, The Moon of Gomrath, 1963, Elidor, 1965, and The Owl Service, 1967. Garner’s prose in The Stone Book Quartet is honed, there’s a crafting of language that’s taken to a new level in search of clarity, there’s an evocative brevity that’s beautiful, poetical, and highly evocative.
The writing is marvellously precise, metaphorical and compressed, using each word to do the power of ten.
Language for Garner goes beyond the surface. He works it, paring it back in search of the essential. It goes all the way down, it’s sedimentary – geological – the spoken sounds, the letters on the page are a long-crafted result of intense research, rumination and discussion. They are hard won. As a result, in four brief books, Garner captures millennia. Things pass – people pass. They record the fact that people exist in their moment and are of their time but also that something of them survives as echoes in the language; in the actions and the genes of their ancestors and in the very soil of the place where they lived.
These books have far more than a story to offer. The final continuity in the stories, linked as they are by repetition of words and image, of places and people, is the continuity of crafts, practised over generations and leaving their products behind them. The prose is simple, concrete and direct, as clear as notes in music and as definite.
The Sunday Times
The Stone Book Quartet has an artistry that is nothing short of breathtaking, a simplicity that engages everyone who can hear the voices of the characters on the page. The use of metaphor has a diamond-like quality that makes us read his text as an exciting exploration of writing. He binds the reader to him and shows us the author working with language to make his book as his characters worked with iron and stone. Not a word is wasted. The episodes in each book stand out clear against the sky and landscape of Garner’s north-east Cheshire.
In The Stone Book Quartet smiths and chandlers, steeplejacks and quarrymen, labourers and artisans all live and work hand-in-hand with the seasons, the elements and the land. There is a mutual respect and a knowledge of the magical here that has somehow, somewhere been long lost to us. These fables beautifully recapture and restore that lost world in simple, searching prose.
As the stories grow into one story, so one’s awareness of the emblems and symbols deepens! Garner binds the reader to him and he shows us the author working with language to make his book as his characters worked with stone and iron. Not a word is wasted.
Times Literary Supplement
Expect a lot and you won’t be expecting too much of “The Stone Book”. It is a miniature masterpiece and, like all great miniatures, is staggering in what its limits contain.
Signal Journal, Thimble Press
Deeply felt but without ever lapsing into the sentimental, these works shine a light on the interconnectedness of a rural village, the subtleties of working with iron and stone, and how the seasons and landscape once governed life. You realise how much has changed, and how quickly things can fade away.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take.
T S Eliot Burnt Norton
- An excellent appreciation of Alan Garner was written in 2005 in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/oct/16/fiction.alangarner